A professor once asked my class, “What is the measurement of a successful ministry?” When I heard this question I knew in my heart how someone would answer. Sure enough, the first hand that went up responded—“A successful ministry is a growing ministry.” I silently sighed in my heart and gently shook my head in disagreement. I quickly responded to my fellow student that, “Numbers do not mean success, or even Spiritual maturity.” I quickly pointed to the “smiling preacher” down in Houston (Osteen for those who cannot figure it out!) and I asked my classmate if they thought that He had a successful ministry there in Texas. My fellow classmate quickly responded that, “God wants His church to grow, and if we do what He wants us to do, He will grow it.” The professor quickly moved on to another subject to avoid an argument. Little did I know that this conversation would eventually haunt me in my future ministry and lead me to a dark place.
When I took my first pastorate, which I am still currently serving, I had stars in my eyes and visions of grandeur. I envisioned filling the pews and having to put out chairs because of all the people that would be coming. I envisioned our student ministry taking off and our children’s department to do the same. I made sure that I knew the numbers of the previous pastor and I used those as a gauge to make sure that I was more successful than he was. This church averages about 75 in Sunday School and runs about 130 average in worship. The community that our church is located in has a population of about 6,000 and has been plateaued in growth for more than five years.
I was finishing my undergraduate work and had already started my graduate work—and I knew that I was going to be successful in ministry. For a while our numbers held strong. Our church was slowly growing in number and we had a few baptisms—ministry was great. Nearly a year in, however, our numbers became stagnant. We had reached the proverbial plateau. We had fewer in the pews. We had fewer baptisms. The newness of having a fresh young pastor was beginning to wane.
As a young pastor I was becoming more and more depressed after every sermon. I would spend hours a day pouring myself into the Word, commentaries, study helps, Greek/Hebrew texts, and praying over a single sermon. I would stand behind that sacred desk, preach my heart out, pray for God to move, give an invitation, and then feel the heartache at the lack of movement from people. I began to question my call, my preaching, my prayer life, and yes—even my salvation.
It was a dark place. It was a place in which I stayed for nearly six months. It was during this time that I reflected upon that conversation that I had had in class about “successful” ministry. Our church was not growing. No decisions were being made. Very few came to the altar to pray. I felt like I was a failure and that I was failing the church. In my head I thought for sure the deacons were meeting secretly to discuss how to get rid of me and how they were most likely upset that the Baptismal waters were not flowing. These months were stressful to me, my wife, and my children. I was in a decision-less desert.
Let me share with you the garden that God has grown in this desert. This very article was on my heart and mind one evening when I received a phone call. A retired preacher called to tell me that a man that I had been praying for, who was 61 years young, had just accepted Christ and wanted to come forward at the next service. Praise the Lord! Even though our next service was the dreaded business meeting—I gave a short devotion and extended an invitation and he came down the aisle with all 32 teeth showing! I planted. My preacher friend watered. God gave the growth.
If my ministry, or yours, truly belongs to God—then it is successful, because God is not a failure. Whether we are growing by leaps and bounds or holding strong with the numbers we have had for years, all Glory to God. We know from God’s Word that it is God who gives the increase (1 Cor. 3:6-7). Not once in scripture is success a measuring stick of ministry. God does not require us, pastors, to be successful. God requires us to be faithful, humble, and submissive to Him. I heard an old preacher preach Matthew 25:21 and say—“God said ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’ NOT, ‘well done, good and successful servant.” I fear too many pastors are beating themselves up, or are being beat up by others, because of a lack of salvation decisions being made in their congregations.
Let me encourage my fellow pastors—young, old, and in-between—remain faithful! It does not matter what church growth material you pick up from LifeWay or whatever may have worked for a church down the street. Follow God’s direction and preach the Word. Mark 4:26-27 clarifies it: “And He was saying, “The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know.” (NASB)
1 Corinthians 3:5-7 is even stronger when it says: “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. (NASB) Some of us water. Some of us plant. We all have a role to fulfill. But growth does not belong to us and is not our responsibility. Programs do not grow churches. LifeWay does not grow churches. Great preaching does not grow churches. Pastors do not grow churches—God does.
Preach the Word. Love the people. Remain faithful. God’s a perfect gardener.